This is the second in a series of articles about Left Unity and Scotland.
What do we talk about when we talk about Left Unity? Why, Scottish independence, of course! And why not? This tartan elephant is too big to ignore. From now until the 18th September 2014 Scottish independence will colour all political discussions north of the border. In all likelihood,i we will wake up on the morning of the 19th still a part of the UK; at which point the referendum, and so the immediacy of the issue, may, or may not, go away for a generation.ii But in the mean time, an open debate needs to take place in Scottish, and indeed English and Welsh, Left Unity groups about the project’s position on the Scottish question.
For the purposes of Left Unity there are, in fact, three separate, but obviously intertwined, issues. The first is the organisation of Left Unity itself. The second is whether Left Unity should be in favour, against or agnostic when it comes to Scottish independence. And the third is whether or not the Left in general should embrace Scottish independence.
First, the composition of Left Unity. There are, without doubt, different national political situations within Britain. Scottish and Welsh devolution means that any Britain-wide political party must also organise at a Scottish, Welsh and English level in order to work effectively within Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd. Even Labour and the Conservatives acknowledge this. However, to construct entirely distinct Scottish and rest-of-UK organisations, or even a UK organisation in name only, would be a step in the wrong direction, towards atomisation and away from unity. In order to effectively confront the Europe-wide austerity programme and challenge the globalized neo-liberal orthodoxy we must unite at the highest level possible. In short, European Left Unity should be the aim, but British Left Unity would be an eminently achievable start. Left Unity, in my opinion, should seek to establish a UK wide party of the Left, within which would sit national, regional and local sections, each able to operate effectively and democratically within the political situations they find themselves in. The great advantage of such a composition, if we remain agnostic on independence for the moment, is its compatibility with both an independent Scotland and the status quo: the possibility of a trans-national Left party should be embraced by all on the Left as it would, ultimately, represent a unity on the basis of class and not nationality.
This is not, I hope, a controversial position to take. Certainly, from initial discussions in Left Unity Glasgow, the notion of a UK wide party with constituent national organisations seems to find favour with the majority. The question is the relationship between these national organisations, whether it ought to be federal or merely fraternal. In my view, organising now as a completely autonomous, independent Scottish organisation, linked to the rest of the UK in name only, in anticipation of constitutional change which may not happen, would be a mistake. While Scotland remains a part of the UK we require a socialistiii party which can represent us in local councils, devolved government parliaments and assemblies, and the UK parliament, as these are the institutions currently enforcing the political will of capital. The austerity programme imposed on us from Westminster, and by Holyrood and local councils, affects everyone in the UK and cannot be opposed on a Scottish basis alone. To do so in a continuing UK state would be to live forever on the defensive; reacting against the latest injustice emanating from London rather than uniting socialists across the UK into one organisation, capable of coordinating a real challenge to political power at its source.
But what of that tartan elephant? What should Left Unity talk about when it talks about Scottish independence? What should the wider Left talk about when it talks about independence? In many ways, the latter answers the former. Nationalism and socialism make ugly bedfellows. Having said that, socialists should always respect a peoples’ right to self-determination. This is not paradoxical. National independence should always be a question of strategy; it should never become a socialist shibboleth. The Stalinist concept of socialism in one country has been thoroughly discredited, with the numerous tragic experiments of the 20th century as proof. Socialism is internationalism. It can only succeed where an area has the resources and means of production sufficient to sustain the people within it. Otherwise it will be at the mercy of the capitalist states which surround it and its only recourse at that point, as we know from history, is tyranny or defeat. This is not impossibilism or ultra-left puritanism; real gains can be made within individual countries like the UK or Scotland, but these gains must always be pursued with working class unity at a wider international level in mind.
So, what would an independent Scotland look like? On the basis of current SNP policy, a lot like it looks now. Scotland would retain the pound, the queen, and even welfare, it has recently been suggested,iv would continue to be administered at a UK level until 2020. Meanwhile, progressive policies, such as free personal care, tuition fees and prescriptions, would be funded through deeply regressive means. Following the disastrous New Labour model, the SNP propose handing tax breaks to businesses, in the form of a low corporation tax,v in the hope that some of the wealth from the resultant free-market race to the bottom free-for-all will trickle down into the government’s coffers. Of course, none of this is news to most on the Left, and left-wing pro-independence campaigns, such as Radical Independence, are alive to the need for a distinctly socialist vision of independence. But two questions need to be asked of the pro-independence Left: what would an independent socialist Scotland look like and what are the prospects for socialism in an independent Scotland. Beginning with the latter, all too often Scottish independence is viewed teleologically as one more step on the road towards socialism. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Firstly, vague notions of solidarity and inspiring others aside, there is no concrete strategy for how socialism in Scotland would become a more sustainable international socialism. Secondly, there exists no real appetite for socialism, as offered by the existing parties, among the Scottish working class. The Scottish and British Social Attitudes surveys show that, since devolution, support for left-wing policies, such as income redistribution, free tuition fees, and increased taxation and spending on health, education and welfare, have significantly declined in Scotland, largely in parallel with their decline in the rest of Britain.vi Moreover, these surveys show that, contrary to popular opinion, Scottish residents are not significantly more left-wing than their English and Welsh counterparts. With a generation of socialists left disillusioned by the failure of the anti-war movement in 2003 and the implosion of the SSP in 2006 resulting in a fractured and, too often antipathetic, Left, the prospects for a lasting independence inspired Left renewal, despite the laudable attempts of RIC, seem bleak. The alternative that Left Unity offers is a long-term commitment to a united Left party, drawing on the skill and experience of socialists across the UK, which puts left-wing unity first, not Scottish independence, and converges around class and socialism, not a desire for constitutional change.vii
But what if Scotland does become independent and that independence sparks a left-wing resurgence? The economic centre of the UK is located in the Southeast of England. This will not change when Scotland becomes independent. All that will have changed will be the ability of people in Scotland to have direct political influence on that centre of economic power. We must organise at a political level commensurate with the economic powers which have such a hold over our lives. That level is the UK and while it can be politically opted out of, it cannot be economically opted out of. I sympathise with those who see the British state as wedded to the interests of British capital and are frustrated with the lack of a left-wing British challenge to that hegemony. However, Scottish independence is not the answer. There is, as discussed above, no evidence to support the idea that an independent Scotland would be more likely to confront the capital, and even if it chose to, it is unclear how it would go about it and what level of success could realistically be expected. Scotland is not Venezuela and simply nationalising key industries would not be straightforward. The risks of such a venture, appealing as it is, as a go-it-alone endeavour in a country of 5 million should not be underestimated. Even if it succeeded, it is difficult to see how it would be enough to keep the capitalist vultures at bay. Its sustainability is also doubtful: lest we forget, we have been here before and I cannot see any reason why a post-independence settlement along the lines of the post-1945 one would be any more successful or long-lasting and not just as vulnerable to the same attacks.viii
Lest we forget too the point towards which I have been labouring. There may be people in Left Unity who agree with my views on independence, there certainly are those who do not. I have tried to avoid characterising the pro-independence Left as Nationalist as to do so would be, in the vast majority of cases, grossly unfair; for socialists, this should not be a debate between Scottish and British Nationalism, indeed we should reject both outright. This difference between us, on the question of independence, should not be allowed to obscure and impede Left unity. We must look beyond September 2014, accept the will of the Scottish people, and continue working tirelessly for a socialist alternative to capitalism internationally. For this reason, I suggest that, for now, Left Unity as an organisation remains officially agnostic on Scottish independence and allows its members and contributors to campaign freely and openly for whichever position they support. The referendum will have come and gone in less than a year and a half and for us to bind our future to its result would be a mistake. For socialists, the constitutional arrangements of capitalist states should be a minor issue, not a cause of bitterness and division. We should continue to build upon the initial enthusiasm for the Left Unity project and, in Scotland, reach out to those involved in RIC and other campaigns and persuade everyone that unity on the basis of class and socialism, across Scotland, the UK and Europe, is worth fighting for.
This piece was written by Chris Cassells for a Left Unity Glasgow debate on Scottish independence. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and not the views of Left Unity Glasgow.
iii Throughout, Socialist and the Left are used in, if not quite the widest possible sense, a broad enough sense to include all those interested in the Left Unity project. This obviously includes socialists, communists of all stripes and, reportedly, even the occasional anarchist.
vii I recognize that this is the weakest part of my argument as the obstacles to Scottish left unity are much the same as the obstacles to British left unity. However, RIC is not primarily concerned with left unity, whereas Left Unity, as the name suggests, is. A unity centred around political and class identity is, in my opinion, infinitely preferable to a unity centred around Scottish independence.
viii Sorry, Ken, but reheated 1940s Labourism is just not enough this time.